Activision might be directing its studios to stay away from developing games that star female characters.
Sources out of Activision are saying that the publisher forced its studios to alter the gender of their games' main characters to stay in line with what it thought would sell. While a specific situation surrounding the development of True Crime: Hong Kong is named, the sources say this is just part of a larger problem at Activision where the company uses focus group tests to the "extreme."
Activision's Treyarch once conceived a game inspired by Hong-Kong action cinema called Black Lotus starring a Lucy Liu-esque female lead. Activision reportedly decided that in 2007, when Halo 3 and Modern Warfare were king, a game starring a female lead wasn't going to work. "We were all on board, and then Activision killed it, said they don't do female characters because they don't sell," one source told Gamasutra. "Activision gave us specific direction to lose the chick," said another.
One plainly believes: "Activision has no room for 'we are making an open-world game with a Hong Kong action movie feel with a female lead,' because that game doesn't exist right now. What they do have room for is, 'we are making an open-world game with a gangster main character who can steal cars and shoot people, but it will be in Hong Kong instead of Liberty City. And then they go, 'Hey, GTA IV sold 10 million copies, so that's what we expect from you.'"
Black Lotus was then reborn as True Crime: Hong Kong, now in development at United Front Games and starring a male lead. The sources indicate that this project switch is evidence of Activision's reliance on focus tests that they say stifle developer creativity. They also say that management skews focus tests at times so that they suit management's own opinions, such as with one case where "feedback sent to the higher-ups from someone on the publishing side was skewed to be the exact opposite" of what it actually was.
But this doesn't just involve True Crime: Hong Kong and the female gender. The sources also say that True Crime: New York once starred a white male police officer until the success of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which starred a black gang member, forced a switch to a black male gangster for True Crime as well.
Activision replied to the allegations, saying it "does not have a policy of telling its studios what game content they can develop, nor has the company told any of its studios that they cannot develop games with female lead characters." It says there was no gender mandate put on the main character of True Crime: Hong Kong, but did say it "uses market research in order to better understand [what] gamers are looking for" like most videogame and media companies.
Anonymous sources are always tough to put my full faith in, because sometimes they can be disgruntled employees with an axe to grind. Whether Activision specifically said "lose the chick" or not, it probably does use focus testing to some degree and try to alter future studio behavior based on the results.
Though we've seen games with female leads like Final Fantasy XIII sell very well, for whatever reason this may not be the case with other genres. Would a Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty-style game really appeal to the same mainstream audience if it were to have a female on the cover or as a main character? If no, why the heck not? I would love to see a studio develop one such title (that's actually good) to see what happens.